Month: June 2021

Nature Writing for Every Day of the Year

I have compiled two collections of nature poetry and, whilst doing so, I came to realise that many of the very best nature writers never wrote poetry and that many of the most moving descriptions of the natural world appear as prose rather than verse. Equally, writers such as Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincy, Daphne du Maurier and Samuel Johnson may not be best-known for their descriptions of the natural world but write on nature with great insight and feeling.

This anthology dips its toe into fact and fiction, letters and diaries, practical field guides and wild imaginings. Following the seasons, day by day, there are identification notes and musings from bygone times, magical forests and many timely warnings, throughout the ages, of the perils of mistreating nature and taking her riches for granted. Increasingly, it has become evident that humans wield enormous power over the wild places of the earth. There is then the added problem of how best to safeguard nature; Aldo Leopold, writing in 1949 made the point, ‘All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.’ Not all writers even liked the wilderness, Daniel Defoe, while travelling round Britain, went from town to town and deplored the wildness of the Lake District. 

Like the Bedside Companion for Gardeners, this is not intended to be a practical manual but I have included entries from field guides where the description is particularly beautiful, interesting or humorous. Anne Pratt, Edward Step and Rev C. A. Johns write so lyrically that their descriptions go far beyond merely useful. Much of the best nature writing allows the imagination to soar and with this in mind I have included the opinions of witches, griffins and a phoenix. Amongst these pieces you will also find bears (grizzly and duffle-coated), cats, dogs and talking ravens. You will discover how to make a cowslip ball, what advice to offer an oak sapling and the way in which many animals become Real.  

This is a very personal selection; readers may be surprised to find the novelist Charles Dickens has more entries than the naturalist W. H. Hudson and that the probably lesser-known Aldo Leopold appears more than Gilbert White. These are the books I love and reread: childhood favourites, moving novels and haunting descriptions of nature. In many cases it was hard to limit the number of extracts but the book I found hardest to cut was Jean Giono’s novella The Man Who Planted Trees. Over the years many publishers and readers have taken it to be a true story, and so it should be, a lesson in what one man can achieve in a relatively short space of time. There are many writers who, for reasons of space and copyright, do not have as many entries as I would have liked; my reading life, indeed my life in all respects, would be poorer without the works of John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, H. E. Bates and Roger Deakin. My hope is that the extracts in the collection will lead readers to their and other original works.

The aim of this anthology is to bring the wild world into readers’ homes and cross the frontier line that Richard Jefferies described in 1879. Since then cities have expanded, roads spread and populations grown but the natural world is still there for those who look for it:

There is a frontier line to civilisation yet; and not far outside its great centres we come quickly even now on the borderland of nature.

(From Wild Life in a Southern County by Richard Jefferies)

Nature Writing for ever Day of the Year is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20


The previous post is on Bedside Companion for Gardeners.


Bedside Companion for Gardeners

I haven’t forgotten about this website but I must admit that the ease of Instagram has tended to supersede the discipline of writing regular posts. Unfortunately, I have been hoisted by my own petard as WordPress has sneakily altered its layout behind my back and I now need to relearn the website skills I’d rather smugly thought I’d mastered.

I have been lucky as I spent two of the three lockdowns researching new anthologies, which will be published this autumn. They follow the same format as the three earlier ones with a piece for every day of the year but these two include prose as well as poetry; the Bedside Companion for Gardeners is a mix of the two whilst Nature Writing for Every Day of the Year is entirely prose. I planned to write about both in one post but I have too much I want to say and two posts will serve as a suitable learning curve for the website.

Of the many anthologies I have compiled, this the gardening companion is definitely the closest to my heart. Much of my adult life has been spent working in gardens, pottering in them or sitting in them, either reading or simply appreciating the outside space. Even when I didn’t have a garden I had window boxes and spent much of my spare time reading about gardens and making plans for when I finally had one of my own. Mirabel Osler wrote in her book A Gentle Plea for Chaos that one doesn’t need to garden to garden. I would take the idea one step further and say that one doesn’t even need a garden to garden: you can visit gardens, peer over walls and round fences, make plans for gardens you might have one day and read about them. The aim of this anthology is to satisfy the last of those activities.

I have deliberately mixed fact and fiction, practical advice and wildly impractical ideas, taking pieces from old gardening manuals, children’s books, Roman diaries and science fiction. My intention was that there would be a balance of the different elements but I hunted down the pieces I liked with no real plan. The result was far too much Dickens, too many pieces about mulberries and cottage garden flowers and vast sections from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. A few wild flowers have also crept in but most of these would happily grace any garden given the opportunity. I did a little pruning but decided that most pieces should stay. As a result the anthology is a little like a slightly unruly climbing rose, tethered to its framework and following a proscribed outline but every so often shooting off at a wild tangent.

It is not intended to be a practical manual. Each month I have included practical advice from John Evelyn in 1664, Samuel Orchart Beeton (husband of Isabella) from two hundred years later and others from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Some show how little gardening has changed whilst others seem to have been written with another world in mind. There are pieces about gardening on the moon too – by H. G. Wells and Hugh Lofting.

Many of these pieces are set in time, which is why I have given the date the original book was written or first published and the author’s dates. Styles and opinions in both gardening and literature change over the years, often dramatically. The Romans took a practical approach to gardening but, during the unsettled times of the Middle Ages, gardens in literature were frequently used as a backdrop for lovelorn suitors. As life became more settled, gardening became a practical and useful option for more people and manuals began to appear. One of the first, by Thomas Tusser, was written in verse as he felt the working man would understand and remember poetry better than prose. In the late eighteenth century professional designers began to play an important role in the gardens of the rich. William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and others were loved and hated in equal measure, arousing passionate feelings and prompting novelists such as Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock to poke fun at their ‘improvements’. From then on, everyone had an opinion about everything. Old-fashioned flowers were charming or outdated, fountains esteemed or unwholesome and some grottos fit only for toads. Shrubberies, temples and topiary have all, at various stages, been in or out of fashion. Some writers intend to be amusing, notably Heath Robinson on poets and Karel Čapek on the dangers involved in watering, whilst others have become humorous as time advances and tastes change. I have tried, but not very hard, to be fair to all sides; I dislike most of Capability Brown’s improvements, love all old- fashioned flowers and like the idea of poets wandering round my garden (in return for a modest fee) in search of inspiration.   

I strongly believe that sitting quietly, simply enjoying your garden is as important as any horticultural activity. Without a little work: planting, pruning, weeding, etc. there would obviously be no garden (I am not writing for people who have full-time gardeners) but I agree with W. H. Davies that, ‘What is this life, if full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?’ Although I would take it one step further and recommend sitting. My hope is that, as well as keeping this anthology by their bedside, weather permitting, readers escape from everyday life and take it into their garden, onto their doorstep or beside their window and read it with the beauty of a garden close by, even if the garden in question is a single window box or a pot of herbs by the back door.

Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite
Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love.

From The Gardener’s Daughter
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Bedside Companion for Gardeners is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20